John Berger (5 November 1926 – 2 January 2017)
John Berger was a man who forged a path to help dismantle the notion of art being something for an elite few. The 90-year-old artist, critic and writer, who passed away on January 2nd in Paris, leaves behind a rich and noble legacy of compassion learning – and a disdain for exclusive cultural gatekeeping.He argued that the way a work of art was perceived differed depending on the person who was perceiving it, and that your own ideology and background guided your absorption of cultural artefacts. His book Ways of Seeing, of the same title as the TV docu-series is a ubiquitous reading list choice for many third level students of arts and humanities. The modern interrogation of centuries-old oil paintings was a milestone in cultural theory.
It’s his writing in the depiction of women in art that is most enduring. Berger argues that the systemic objectification of women in visual art has continued from the oil paintings of centuries past, into the films and advertisements of recent times. Berger sums up the inherent hypocrisy in images of women created for the patriarchal male gaze:
‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.’
With Ways Of Seeing, Berger popularised the attitude that art should be for all. This was no doubt governed by his notably Marxist outlook on life. He believed that the enjoyment and appreciation of art should not be saved for a privileged, pretentious few who thought their perceptions and tastes to be the standard. His influence will be felt for decades to come.
John Berger – “Ways of Seeing” – summary and revienow classic article “Ways of Seeing” (1972) revolutionarily, for his time, analyses the manner in which men and women are culturally represented, and the subsequent results these representations have on their conduct and self as well and mutual perception. In “Ways of Seeing” Berger claims that the representations of men and women in visual culture entice different “gazes”, different ways in which they are looked at, with men having the legitimization of examining women, and women – also examine women.
Ways of Seeing
Published in 1972 and based on a BBC television programme of the same name, this is a very influential text on art criticism. Although the book and programme make the same case, they do so in slightly different ways, and the programme is well worth watching. For the photographer, the book has the advantage of putting photography in the context of western art. For the student new to critical theory, it has the advantage of being produced for a mass audience, and has as a central aim the de-mystification of art. These two points make it relatively easy to understand. A further advantage this book has is that many students have not had the opportunity to study photography, but have studied art, and so the book presents a logical progression for them when they start to study photography. The television programme is divided into four sections and although the book is divided into seven chapters (three being made up solely of images), the book also covers four areas. The summary is of three of the four written chapters.
Above you will find the docu-series and the the book, the series is divided into four sections and although the book is divided into seven chapters (three being made up solely of images), the book also covers four areas.
Chapter 1. In this chapter, Berger points out what is involved in seeing, and how the way we see things is determined by what we know. He goes on to argue that the real meaning of many images has been obscured by academics, changed by photographic reproduction and distorted by monetary value.
Chapter 3. In this chapter, Berger shows how the nude in western art systematically objectified women, and how this tradition has been continued by photography.
Chapter 5. Here, Berger argues that oil painting has, because of its realism, a powerful link to ownership and the buying power of money, and so often celebrates the power of money. This chapter is not summarised.
Chapter 7. In this chapter, Berger further develops the link between ownership and art by critically looking at modern consumerist society and ‘publicity’ or advertising photography.
Nudity is increasingly being used in advertising. Are the criticisms Berger makes of the traditional nude in oil painting still relevant today? Consider a range of advertisements to substantiate your answer or look at a range of social media profile pictures.
Berger presents a pictorial essay to illustrate that photography continues the objectifying of the nude that traditional oils had done. Collect copies of a range of images online and present a pictorial essay of your own either to support/negate this view today.
Berger claims that advertising undermines democracy by encouraging people to assert their individuality through consumption rather than by being politically active? Do you think this is true?